Whatever happened to salvation?

whatever happened to salvation

1.0 The Word of God Revealed for Our Salvation

In His goodness and wisdom God chose to reveal Himself and to make known to us the hidden purpose of His will (see Eph. 1:9) by which through Christ, the Word made flesh, man might in the Holy Spirit have access to the Father and come to share in the divine nature (see Eph. 2:18; 2 Peter 1:4). (Dei Verbum, 2)

The Second Vatican Council's Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum) provides a very fitting starting point for this reflection on salvation. All things begin in the mystery of God's will. Revelation is God's own self-disclosure to us, and is an invitation into personal relationship. This revelation was never meant to be impeded by human refusal, but since God's offer of relationship was rejected in the beginning, revelation now occurs under the mode of salvation.

Planning to make known the way of heavenly salvation, He went further and from the start manifested Himself to our first parents. Then after their fall His promise of redemption aroused in them the hope of being saved (see Gen. 3:15) and from that time on He ceaselessly kept the human race in His care, to give eternal life to those who perseveringly do good in search of salvation (see Rom. 2:6-7). (Dei Verbum, 3)

Instead of God's revelation unfolding simply as heart to heart in love, it must now also penetrate through human hardness of hearing and hardness of heart. This disorientation of human being is now the 'filter' through which we see and hear God's word. We make it hard for God to get through to us. So the incarnation of the eternal Word also occurs under the mode of salvation. Jesus Christ is sent as saviour to those hard of hearing and hard of heart, to make God known to us in the flesh, with a human face, as one of us.

Then, after speaking in many and varied ways through the prophets, "now at last in these days God has spoken to us in His Son" (Heb. 1:1-2). For He sent His Son, the eternal Word, who enlightens all men, so that He might dwell among men and tell them of the innermost being of God (see John 1:1-18). Jesus Christ, therefore, the Word made flesh, was sent as "a man to men". He "speaks the words of God" (John 3:34), and completes the work of salvation which His Father gave to Him to do (see John 5:36, 17:4). (Dei Verbum, 4)

It is through Christ that we discover the real nature and depth of the salvation that we need in order that we might come into the intimate presence of God. God comes to live among us, to lead from the front, as it were, to actually demonstrate how we are to live so as to be pleasing to God. It seems God decided that anything less would not get through to us.

Through divine revelation, God chose to show forth and communicate Himself and the eternal decisions of His will regarding the salvation of men. (Dei Verbum, 6)

Now that God has revealed this full and final truth, it must have its effect down through all ages and in all places. God wants all to be saved. And so God established the presence of Christ definitively in the Church, the Body of Christ present to the world.

In His gracious goodness, God has seen to it that what He had revealed for the salvation of all nations would abide perpetually in its full integrity and be handed on to all generations. Therefore Christ the Lord in whom the full revelation of the supreme God is brought to completion (see 2 Cor. 1:30; 3:15; 4:6), commissioned the Apostles to preach to all men that Gospel which is the source of all saving truth and moral teaching, and to impart to them heavenly gifts. (Dei Verbum, 7)

The Church is the people of God, the disciples of Jesus, those entrusted with revealing God's word for the salvation of the world. To make this plan effective God sent his Spirit to inspire the Apostles and Evangelists, to proclaim in word and deed the saving works of God.

Those divinely revealed realities which are contained and presented in sacred Scripture have been committed to writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. (Dei Verbum, 11)

Now down through the ages the Church turns to the word of God expressed in the inspired scriptures. We find God revealed there, and crucially, we discover in the scriptures the way of salvation. In composing the sacred books, God chose men and while employed by Him they made use of their powers and abilities, so that with Him acting in them and through them, they, as true authors, consigned to writing everything and only those things which He wanted. Therefore since everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit, it follows that the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into the sacred writings for the sake of our salvation [emphasis added]. (Dei Verbum, 11)

We can see then how central is the notion of salvation in the Christian life. It is the defining character of the scriptures. It is the central drama of the liturgy in which Christ's life, death and resurrection are made present in every age.

When we read the scriptures, and wonderful documents like Dei Verbum, we can sense something transcendent. We can become inspired to respond in faith and hope. And yet, in our times the world seems particularly hard of hearing. God's word does not seem to be getting through. The beautiful things quoted above do not seem to connect. And most pertinent here, the notion of salvation itself has been greatly weakened, even lost from the consciousness of many Christians themselves. Why is that?

2.0 Factors Obscuring the Nature and Priority of Salvation

The theology of salvation is fundamental to Christian understanding and to Christian mission. As we have noted, the word of God communicated to us in the scriptures is 'for our salvation'. In the not too distant past the Church gave a high priority to the language of salvation, and presented a compelling synthesis about salvation that made sense to people, even if they rejected it or disagreed with it. Yet in our time the language and message of salvation struggle to evoke an adequate response. It seems to have lost its resonance and meaningfulness to people. Yet the world is still subject to dire problems, and vast numbers of people are suffering and searching for meaning and liberation.

There are many factors that make it hard to translate the traditional synthesis into a compelling contemporary form. What is salvation? Why do we need to be saved? From what do we need to be saved? How can we be saved? The Christian notion of salvation has lost traction in people's minds. It no longer seems to engage people's understanding, at least not in any clear way. If we no longer have a clear idea of the problem it is hard to get a clear idea of the solution - and vice versa. What difference, exactly, does Jesus Christ make? Is Christianity just one of a number of more or less equal ways that genuine people try to be good? After all, even the Church agrees that individuals who have never heard of Christ or the Church can be saved.

"We believe that the Church is necessary for salvation, because Christ, who is the sole mediator and way of salvation, renders Himself present for us in His body which is the Church. But the divine design of salvation embraces all men, and those who without fault on their part do not know the Gospel of Christ and His Church, but seek God sincerely, and under the influence of grace endeavour to do His will as recognized through the promptings of their conscience, they, in a number known only to God, can obtain salvation." (The Credo of the People of God, Pope Paul VI)

Let us consider some of these factors as they come to bear on four aspects of salvation: salvation from personal sin, from physical evil, from social evil, and from original sin.

2.1 Salvation from Personal Sin

Salvation from personal sin is probably the clearest aspect of the traditional understanding. The basic human problem is personal sin, conceived as subjectively culpable acts against natural and divine law. The guilt incurred by such acts can only be removed by God's forgiveness, which requires personal repentance by the sinner. Personal sin gains its preeminent seriousness from the dire possibility of rejecting God and suffering spiritual death. But nowadays there is a greater scepticism about such serious sin. How common is it really? Are we teetering all the time on the edge of disaster? The conviction of the seriousness and danger of personal sin has been greatly qualified, even diluted and blurred in modern times by a number of trends.


The study of psychology and related disciplines uncovers many complexities that tend to mitigate personal culpability. There are many contributing factors that restrict the zone of subjective freedom from which a person acts. Some of these have been long recognised, such as ignorance, mental incapacity, inner compulsion and outer duress. But the underlying basis for these is now explored in far more detail, so that in the popular understanding there appears to be a greatly expanded scope for lenience towards what objectively have been called sins. Perhaps the quest for psychological wholeness must take temporal priority over conversion from sin? But a temporal priority can easily become an ideological priority.


This same process has included social factors, with a more detailed account of how an individual's freedom to act in a fully moral way is conditioned by upbringing, education, economic circumstance, and so on. We are more aware of how someone might have acted from weakness rather than from deliberate intent, so that even some crimes can be thought of as a kind of 'social reflex', rather than being clear and deliberate personal acts. Someone who has been abused is more likely to become an abuser. This focus on the social has involved a greater study of social systems that tend to condition everyone's behaviour along particular lines. Some of these systems affect some classes of people disproportionately. The poor have become an object of study as victims of such systems, apart from, or as well as being victims of individual acts by deliberate offenders.


Such social systems take on a cultural form, so that the meanings and values approved or disapproved by society are internalised by individuals and expressed in the dominant cultural forms. So people can be brought up to hold views that are objectively distorted according to Christian teaching, but which are considered normal in the particular culture or subculture. Since culture is so intimately related to the development of personal identity, these cultural influences can have a decisive formative influence on individuals, significantly qualifying culpability for personal actions.


All the preceding factors have a historical aspect, so culpability for sin may be reduced by a web of conditioning which makes it hard, not just for individuals to change, but for societies and cultures to change. The challenge of converting individuals to a good moral life seems to require a prior transformation of the historical effects on the culture. Perhaps the mission for personal conversion has to take a backseat to social and cultural change? But if such a strategy is authentic, it also seems to have the effect of diminishing the urgency, and hence the importance, of personal conversion.


Salvation from personal sin requires conversion, and this can involve a notable break with the past, not just a change for the better but a repudiation of elements of one's former life. At times the Church's missionary efforts have impacted whole societies and cultures in ways experienced as a rupture and a repudiation. In the less than ideal circumstances which often accompanied and shaped such missionary efforts some cultures were not respected sufficiently as to the different ways they already embodied elements of the truth. Such elements might have served as more effective, harmonious and less destructive preparations for receiving the explicit preaching of the Gospel. It is still true that cultures commonly involve elements that need to be repudiated, but nowadays we are more sensitive to the diversity of cultures. There is greater awareness now of the ways truth can be expressed in ways essentially compatible with the Gospel but not immediately apparent. We are less prone to unthinkingly riding roughshod over different cultures. But this seems to slow down the process of evangelisation, albeit with the hope for deeper and longer lasting effectiveness. Nevertheless it is another factor seeming to shift attention from the urgency and uniqueness of Christian salvation.

Scientific Knowledge

There has been an explosion of scientific knowledge in the last few centuries. One area has been medical knowledge, closely interrelated with psychological knowledge. For example, we now know a lot more about how underlying chemical states affect feelings and patterns of thinking. One notable change in Christian pastoral practice has been attitudes towards suicide. Objectively speaking it is a grave sin, since it is a repudiation of one's life itself, the fundamental gift we have received from God. Yet in practice it seems that many suicides occur in states of greatly, perhaps even entirely diminished moral culpability. So now we can respond more compassionately to most of these tragedies, without worrying that we are implicitly denying any essential truth of the faith. In less serious matters we have also become slower to judge, thinking first of the possibility that someone's actions have been significantly affected by some underlying medico-psychological condition.

Scientific Method

The mode of study of all these issues has tended to adopt a version of scientific method developed for the investigation of the nonhuman world. Used for the study of human realities it can easily become reductive, so that we give full value to the objective factors that diminish moral culpability, but exclude from our study the counterbalancing factors that would adequately ground moral culpability. Such reduction can become a methodical bias. By ruling out questions of value the study becomes lop-sided. We become more sophisticated about the possible mitigating factors, but less sophisticated about the moral dimension.


This kind of bias can lead ultimately to a generalised aversion to ontology. At some point reductive bias can 'extrapolate itself' to a totality, so that the methodical reduction comes to be thought of as an ontological reduction. That which we exclude from study is no longer real. Not only do we no longer study sin - it seems there is no such thing. This conclusion is reached by a sleight of hand, not by fully rigorous inquiry. Perhaps it is not just sin that is not real, but nothing else is either, at least there is no definitive way we can claim that there is. So ontological claims must be a mistaken or disguised form of something else. This underlying attitude can also affect theology in subtle ways so that a more radical kind of questioning is applied to all doctrine. Can there even be doctrine? Even if there is wrongdoing in some sense, can any of it really be characterised as sin?


There are also specifically theological factors that have led to a lessening of focus on salvation. The emphasis on the nature of God as love has counteracted previous approaches which seemed to overemphasise God as one who tests and judges. A predominantly juridical approach tends to make God seem more forbidding and harsh. The move away from the juridical emphasis can take away the judgemental tone of salvation discourse. Yet this also reduces the urgency of the sense of sin and the need for conversion.

2.2 Salvation from Physical Evil

The question of what has traditionally been called physical evil has become problematic for many. It refers to suffering and death, but these appear to be natural phenomena. All living things are subject to suffering and death. In what sense are these phenomena 'evil'? Is the use of the term evil only metaphorical? Is it just because suffering and death feel problematic to us in a way seeming to imply moral significance?

This is the aspect in which the traditional view appears most bluntly opposed to the modern view. It appears to many to be one area where the traditional must be jettisoned entirely. How can suffering and death be 'evil' in any literal sense if they are simply part of our natural condition? Since it is a fundamental doctrine that God is good, and that all of God's creation was made good, we seem to have only two options. Either suffering and death are literally good, simply part of God's plan for us, or God has been responsible for creating evil. The latter is either incoherent or blasphemous. The former seems like a contradiction. With our words we say 'God is good', but with our feelings we doubt.

In the past this contradiction was accounted for by a theological synthesis in which Adam and Eve were created to live in a paradise, with preternatural gifts to preserve them from suffering and death. They lost these gifts through the Fall, in which they rejected God's friendship. We suffer now because humankind is a single community of persons through time and space, so we feel the effects of the first sin. We too have become subject to suffering and death. So God was absolved from any responsibility for suffering and death. Can something like this view remain part of Christian teaching, or do suffering and death have to be accounted for in some other way? Various factors have called this synthesis into question.

The Natural Sciences

The natural sciences have greatly increased our understanding of the origins of the universe, of the earth, and of life. They cast more light on the biological origins of the human race. The picture of early humanity seems necessarily very simple and basic, not an elevated state from which we fell, but an early stage from which we have developed. People now generally think of our early ancestors as primitive, not people to look up to, as from a golden age, but witnesses to how limited our early state must have been. The imaginative power of an original idyllic state has largely disappeared from culture. We are much more likely to project an idyllic state into the future, attained through technological development or some kind of evolution. The mental image most people have now of our early origins is of a greatly diminished state compared to our own. This means that any teaching presented in the manner of the traditional synthesis is felt as a symbolic clash, to the disadvantage of the traditional idea. It is important to note that this resistance is not directly a scientific matter, but a cultural phenomenon associated with the development of modern science. That which is specifically scientific seems to close out the space for distinctively cultural and religious forms supportive of an intellectually coherent synthesis grounding the acceptance of the notion of physical evil.

The Human Sciences

The human sciences have developed under the strong influence of a generally reductive method based on the natural sciences. This is not to say it is necessarily simplistic, but a prolonged abstinence from engagement with theological foundations impoverishes human studies. Not only that, this abstinence has not only been methodological, but method has been for many a cover for an ideological repudiation. This means that the notion of the human person has been impoverished. The greater sophistication arising from the scientific has been countered by a reductive effect arising from the ideological. This effect has been exacerbated by the often unconscious avoidance which has excluded the greater part of the data from the fields of study. This means that when theologians try to draw on the human sciences they have a diminished partner with whom to dialogue. The question of the human spirit cannot be 'bracketed' from the human sciences but must be integrated into them. This has to enter into the basic terms and relations defining these fields as such. It cannot be added on later to something already essentially complete in itself. Anthropology is primarily a theological discipline and only secondarily a secular one. If it is conceived the other way round, the picture of early humanity cannot avoid being so reductive as to render it incapable of being much help in determining questions such as the status of physical evil.

Theological Anthropology

One of the Church's non-negotiable teachings is that human beings are not purely physical, but have a spiritual nature which does not evolve but is directly created by God. There currently appears to be an insuperable divide between a scientific account that cannot account for such spiritual matters, and a theological account that struggles to formulate a solution that both preserves doctrine and is consonant with the scientific account. The spiritual aspect of the person seems to have no 'contents', so that it depends for its elaboration on the 'natural' aspect of the person. But if this elaboration leaves no openings for the spirit, but is a seemingly self sufficient theory, the doctrinal component appears to be mere assertion, adding nothing to the intelligibility of the human person. The distinctively theological contribution is frustrated. This has major implications especially when treating the question of physical evil. By default it tends to be left undeveloped.


The main trend of theological speculation seems to have favoured a reinterpretation of doctrine to account for suffering and death as natural phenomena that are not evil in the literal sense. Rather, it is our reaction to them that is problematic, brought on by either our sinfulness or lack of development. So we use suffering as an excuse not to face the challenge of growth. Yet mainstream theology in recent decades has proceeded largely without a deep engagement with philosophy, and if there is one question where philosophy is surely indispensable it is that of the precise nature and status of physical evil.

Rejection of Death

The world itself is beset by massive suffering, not just from human causes, but from illness and natural disaster. There is no sign that people accept such suffering as something 'good', or find death easier to accept. If anything, the trend in some societies is towards increasing rejection of suffering and death, through moves towards euthanasia, as well as acceptance of abortion, and of medical research on embryos. Yet this coincides with the desolation of those affected by the suicide of loved ones.

Rejection of God

At the popular level there is probably less willingness now to accept the idea of a God who even allows suffering, let alone causes it. How could all this misery be part of a loving God's plan? Perhaps God is not all-powerful after all? Do we have to re-examine the idea of God as unchangeable? There is an interesting connection here. If we do not accept the notion of personal sin, it is even harder to accept physical evil. Those who see a link between sin and suffering at least have some kind of explanation, even if it is overstated or misconceived in some of its manifestations.

The Resurrection

If death was part of our natural condition as intended by God, how do we make sense of the resurrection of the body, which is an article of faith? Christianity has never accepted stoicism as the proper and adequate response to death. Nor is it a simplistically 'happy' event. These considerations and many more indicate a state of confusion and indecision about the question of physical evil. It has by no means been resolved. This is a pastoral problem because the traditional view is no longer being taught. Nor is there any adequate replacement. If we reject the notion of physical evil as a consequence of sin, the resurrection appears more like a final stage of evolution rather than of salvation.

2.3 Salvation from Social Evil

During most of Christian history society had been organised along comparatively simple, hierarchical lines due to a limited state of economic development, as well as the constancy of conflict and war. The physical circumstances of life were very circumscribed, by limited medical knowledge, by the state of technology generally, and by limited possibilities for economic and social development. The horizons within which salvation was conceived were more prominently shaped by the realities of physical suffering and early death, as well as fairly constrained social options. Recent centuries have brought massive change through technological developments that have transformed society, bringing widespread better health, longer life and greater opportunities for social mobility and cultural diversity.

Social Mobility

This has directed attention more closely to society itself as a construction of human meaning. Seemingly immutable social arrangements now appear more clearly as a result of human choice. The phenomenon of social sin has emerged as a factor in the question of salvation. So while the focus on personal sin and physical evil have diminished, relatively speaking, the focus on social sin has increased.

Social Sin

And yet this presents a puzzle. If sin in the proper sense is a personal act, how can it be attributed to impersonal social structures? There seems to be a great deal of real evil caused by social injustice, but it is exceedingly difficult to find who is to blame. At the same time as we target those in leadership positions, we become more aware of our own complicity through sins of omission. We could become overwhelmed by a vague, unshakeable guilt, or project our anger on social targets, including outsiders, as well as politicians and corporate leaders? Or do we subside into apathy, and decide just to enjoy life? We could also wonder about the symbolisation of the unity of society, and of government. In monarchies government was identified with a person. There was an actual person to whom blame could be attributed. In democracy this is diffused, so that we cannot easily identify who the real governors are. It seems as if an impersonal bureaucracy is in charge.

Social Repentance

We can wonder, how are we saved from social evil? To be saved from personal sin we must repent. But who should repent for social sins, and how? Is there avoidance and dishonesty in repenting on behalf of past generations, once the spotlight of personal culpability has safely moved on to others? How can we bring this process more into the present and face these issues while they are still happening, without either making scapegoats of others or taking on ourselves a burden of guilt we do not deserve?

The Seeming Insignificance of Personal Sin

We can see this interrelation between personal and social sin, yet the factors reducing the acceptance of the reality of personal sin make it harder to address social sin. There can be a tendency to abandon our focus on the personal, since my own seemingly small sins appear so insignificant compared to the massive suffering caused by the cumulative effects of social injustice. Yet without myriad small acts where do the large scale effects come from?

Unintended Consequences

Since many social injustices originate in good intentions with unforeseen consequences, we recognise that understanding is a key factor. It is not just a matter of goodwill. Yet the complexities in large systems are enormous. We can become paralysed when we seem to have tried all the options and all of them have major negative side-effects. It becomes more apparent to us that huge problems can arise that appear in the guise of social injustice but for which no one at all seems responsible. This can lead to a sense that society is a form of capricious and ultimately immutable fate just like the physical world. Maybe there is no personal sin but just different kinds and degrees of lack of development. Maybe we need to abandon the salvation discourse and reinterpret everything in terms of development?

2.4 Salvation from Original Sin

The notion of original sin has become a stumbling block for many these days. There has always been the difficulty of distinguishing it adequately in practice from personal sin, and this difficulty remains. To that is added misgivings related to what has been said earlier. In a world in which evolution plays a fundamental role, not just in the physical world but in society and culture, it can seem to reinforce the interpretation that sin is really just a lack of development. It feels personal because some of this lack of development is involved in the evolution of the individual psyche and self, yet the struggles and sufferings could be subsumed under the heading of development, and sin reinterpreted as the inevitable difficulties associated with the process. And yet.

If we do not discern original sin in a clear framework we still discern it in a disproportion. Some things refuse to be subsumed under the notion of development. Some of these are in horrendous personal acts, and others are in an intensity or scale of physical suffering we just cannot accept. As we wrestle with all this the question of original sin remains a live one.

The Beginnings of Sin

Although a broad theological consensus could probably be reached on the state of original sin as some kind of real dimension of the sinfulness we experience now, there seems to be a real dilemma about how the whole thing got started. If there is sin now there had to be a first sin. If it was not personal and dire how could it be called sin? This dilemma leads some to keep pursuing explanations that inadvertently but effectively reinterpret all sin as lack of development. So there is a problem for understanding, a challenge to conceive original sin in a way that can demonstrate why it is the way it is now and how it got started.

A First Sin

Logically there had to be a first sin, or there is no sin now. But was the first sin 'constitutional' or merely 'incremental'? The traditional view is that the first sin had a 'constitutional' effect on humanity as a whole. Many contemporary attempts to rethink original sin conceive any first sin as merely one among the aggregate of humanity's sins over the whole of history. But this implies that there was nothing special about the original condition of humankind, but that they were in all respects just like us. This has enormous implications, still to be adequately reckoned with.

Social Sin by Another Name

Because of the centrality of the general notion of development, it can seem as though the notion of original sin is really an earlier version of the notion of social sin. Some of the contemporary thinking on original sin seems to be an explanation more of social sin than original sin in its distinctive character. The hope seems to be that if we could clarify the traditional accounts of original sin so as to see them as earlier attempts at a theory of social sin, this would clarify the mythological elements understandable in early conceptions, enabling us to disentangle and remove them from a properly critical account of social sin.


If original sin could be reinterpreted as social sin we could understand Jesus' role in our salvation in a way more open to the plurality of religious experiences, and not need to emphasise Jesus' uniqueness at the seeming expense of his universality. Salvation then could be seen more as a diverse process, and since the Church herself admits that individuals can be saved without explicit knowledge of Christ or membership in the Church, it seems that some of the traditional clarity of conception is a bit too simplistic.

Reinterpreting Doctrine

This can become a more general trend in theological development, seeming to have the support of doctrinal development. Many other implications flow from it and we could reinterpret the whole body of doctrine to more fully and richly express the diversity of human experience, which hitherto, for quite understandable reasons, had been too narrow and particular. At the same time we retain our moral sense of disturbance when we experience or contemplate truly profound evil. Yet apart from the logical possibility of personal evil of such a notable kind we might feel that everything else can be worked somehow into a worldview in which original sin is really just a symbolic name for social sin.

The End, Not the Beginning

Some have wondered, perhaps we do not have to draw such a sharp line between sin and lack of development? Since Christ is the solution to the problem of original sin, and his Second Coming will draw the whole of creation up into the divine, maybe we have to let go of the idea of an original sin at the beginning of human history and identify original sin simply as the fact of sinfulness-lack of development of the cosmos as a whole. If that is so, how do we understand personal sin now? Is it really personal? If not, salvation would seem to be either necessarily universal or not needed at all.


As this brief survey shows, there are numerous factors that have tended to dilute the understanding and awareness of the nature and necessity of salvation. This is not just a general trend affecting the church and society at large, but theologians also. Is it just a matter of language? Are we still accounting adequately, but in different words, for what had previously been integrated under the heading of salvation?

Or has the concept been superseded? Are we better off thinking in different terms about the nature of Christ's, and the Church's, mission? Or can the notion of salvation become again a key interpretive concept shaping that mission? What would it take to achieve that?

Down the track a bit I hope to contribute something to answering that question.